A conservative organization has joined with a group of California teachers in an effort to overturn laws that allow teacher unions to collect fees from those who don't want to be members.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Santa Ana, targets "agency-shop" rules that apply in about half the states in the country.
Under the law, unions can collect from teachers a base fee for services they provide, whether the teachers choose to join the union or not. The law also includes a process by which a union reduces the fees to exclude the cost of political activities from those such as negotiating for wages and benefits. Teachers who don't want to belong to the union must "opt out" every year. A separate process allows them to challenge the amount of remaining fees they still pay as nonmembers.
The suit claims that state law violates the teachers' right of free speech and association.
"This isn’t an attack on unions and collective bargaining," said attorney Terry Pell of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights, a conservative public-interest law firm. "This is an attempt to let individuals vote with their feet.”
"The big change is that unions would have to compete for membership,” he added.
A union spokesman defended California's rules for handling union deductions.
"No one is forced to join a union or to spend money on politics," said Frank Wells of the California Teachers Assn. "The opt out process is neither arduous nor intimidating."
He said the suit was the latest in a series of attempts to limit funding that allows unions to compete against corporate interests in politics.
"Suits like this mirror voter-rejected initiative attempts like Proposition 32, which are clearly really about weakening unions and worker rights, and not about protecting workers with rights they already have now anyway," Wells added.
The U.S. Supreme Court has sided largely with unions in finding mandatory union fees to be legal. But it's also legal for states to forbid the fees within their jurisdiction.
Pell said he expects the teachers' suit to fail in the lower federal courts because those courts are bound by the past guidance of the Supreme Court. The suit is being pursued, he said, because of a perceived shift on the issue within the nation's highest court itself.
The suit was filed on behalf of the California-based Christian Educators Assn. International as well as 10 teachers across the state. The targeted school systems include Norwalk-La Mirada Unified in Los Angeles County, Santa Ana Unified and Saddleback Valley Unified in Orange County and Chino Valley Unified in San Bernardino County.
Named as defendants in the suit are the local unions for these teachers, the superintendents in their school districts, the California Teachers Assn. and the National Education Assn.
Union members in L.A. Unified pay $689 a year in dues, according to United Teachers Los Angeles. Non-union members pay $493 annually. Union fees can range much higher elsewhere. L.A. Unified and its union are not parties to the litigation.
The suit is being handled by lawyers from Jones Day, a national firm, and the Center for Individual Rights.
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